Time and time again I see toddlers benefiting from impulse control – ours, not theirs. Our natural tendencies to project and protect when our children seem challenged invariably lead us to intervene too much or too soon. These good intentions can then spoil rich opportunities for physical, cognitive, creative, social and emotional development.
Rule #1: More often than not, struggles and conflicts we might perceive negatively are viewed by infants and toddlers through an entirely different lens. Here’s an example…
During a recent RIE Parent/Toddler Guidance Class, a 14-month-old girl stood holding a miniature blue rubber bowl in her hand and a red one in her mouth. A boy a couple of months older walked over and took the bowl out of her mouth. I was sure the girl would be upset or, at least, complain, but I waited to gauge her reaction. She just looked at the boy with interest. Then the boy took a “sip” from the red bowl. The girl followed his lead, sipping from the blue bowl still in her hand. After this jovial toast they separated, moving on to other activities. A grandfather visiting that day had also witnessed the exchange, and we shared appreciative smiles. This would never have happened had I stopped the boy from taking the bowl or insisted he give it back.
Through infant expert Magda Gerber, I’ve learned that observing sensitively, taking cues from our children, intervening as minimally as possible and allowing situations to play out can bring surprising, positive results.
To demonstrate, here’s a new favorite video of mine depicting two types of toddler struggles. The first is a conflict of desires between two 21-month-old girls. Neither get’s upset. In fact, they seem to enjoy the mini-drama! See how the conflict ends triumphantly. The second is a struggle within this struggle in which a girl does get upset. Her screams might have compelled her mom to swoop in and scoop her up, but she instead remains calm and intervenes in a manner that allows her daughter to feel more able and successful. (All this in 2 minutes! No actors were hired.)
Experiences like these encourage children to develop:
Language – words like “blue”, “box”, “sit down” and even abstract concepts like “right now” are understood and verbalized.
Social skills – communication, taking turns, self-control, delayed gratification.
Self-confidence and resiliency – I can do it (figure it out, handle it).
Here are some guidelines for facilitating learning through healthy infant and toddler struggles:
1. If it looks like there might be a struggle or conflict developing, move closer as calmly and quietly as possible.
2. Observe and wait.
3. Keep children safe. Block any hitting, pushing, biting or hair pulling with your hand and say something brief and simple to the child like, “I won’t let you push. I see you want the toy. Joey is holding it now.” Be there to spot when children are struggling with a physical challenge–close enough to break a fall.
5. Acknowledge the feelings you see. “You seem frustrated. It’s hard to get out of the box, isn’t it?” (By the way, the girl in the video had climbed out of the box twice on her own quite easily, so I knew she could do it.)
6. If children continue to struggle and intervention seems necessary, try doing just a little to help so the children can learn and accomplish more. For example, if two children are both determined to have a toy, first point out an identical one (but don’t hand it to them). Or if a child is physically struggling, give direction and a bit of help the way the mom in the video does.
7. Reflect on the incident afterwards (if the child seems interested) to help her absorb, process and learn from it.
“Following the RIE approach, we start with the least amount of help and intervention and then slowly increase it. We do expect and trust that even infants eventually learn most by working out conflicts all by themselves. If every time adults jump in and bring in their version of what is right, the children learn either to depend on them or defy them. The more we trust they can solve, the more they do learn to solve.” –Magda Gerber, Dear Parent: Caring For Infants With Respect
I share much more about this respectful approach in my book: